Ethical ways for psychologists to counteract negative reviews online
March 9, 2016
If you Google your name, the first page of search results may show ratings from Healthgrades, Yelp and similar sites. Sometimes these ratings are less than kind. And sometimes they’re not even posted by real clients.
Upon seeing a negative review, your first thought might be, “How do I get this removed?” Check the website’s Terms of Service. Many rating sites stipulate that reviews must be based on facts and must not include inflammatory, racist, sexist or other prejudicial content.
Thus, if someone posts a scathing review, calling you “scum of the earth,” that would likely violate the rating site’s terms of service and your request for removal of that review will be granted.
If the review is obviously factually inaccurate and does not reflect your mode of practice – e.g., a complaint that you didn’t clean your stethoscope – you can probably get it removed.
However, it’s almost impossible to get your basic profile listing removed from a review site, since your business name, address, phone number and website URL are all public records.
What about negative reviews that don’t violate the review site’s terms of service?
People have a right to free speech. If a review sounds factual but casts you in a negative light (e.g., states that you kept looking at your watch, or that your office was cold and drafty) you probably won’t succeed in having it removed by the rating site – whether or not the reviewer is telling the truth.
Retail businesses routinely reply publicly to negative reviews. A café owner might post: “Sorry that service was so slow. One of our cooks was out for a few days, due to a family emergency. We’d like to make it up to you. Next time you come in, please identify yourself and enjoy dessert on us.”
However, psychologists are ethically constrained in how we can respond. We cannot reply to a comment about a drafty office with, “Sorry it was cold. The heating system has since been repaired.” To do so would acknowledge that the reviewer is a current or former client – which would violate APA’s Ethical Standard 4.01 – Maintaining Confidentiality.
Other sections of the ethical code also constrain us from responding to reviews online:
*Principle E: Respect for People’s Rights and Dignity – Psychologists respect the dignity and worth of all people and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality and self-determination.
*5.05 Testimonials – Psychologists do not solicit testimonials from current therapy clients/patients or other persons who because of their particular circumstances are vulnerable to undue influence.
Thus, while restaurants and other public businesses frequently encourage customers to post positive reviews (so as to offset any negative comments) psychologists cannot ethically ask current or former clients to do so.
So what can be done about negative reviews?
If a negative review does not violate the site’s terms of service, you’ll likely have to live with it. However, you can mitigate long-term damage to your reputation via strategies similar to those used by professional reputation management companies. The following are compatible with APA’s Ethical Code:
- Take charge of your profile on rating sites. Fill in all the fields describing your practice to ensure accuracy. On your profile page, explain ethical concerns about reviews. (For a great example, see the Yelp page for San Francisco-based Keely Kolmes, Psy.D.)
- Publish lots of content online – blog posts, press releases, social media. When someone Googles your name, they may see a negative review, but there will also be several links to favorable content that highlights your professionalism.
- Improve your SEO (search engine optimization), which helps you gain a more positive online presence. (See bit.ly/tpi-seo for tips on this.)
- Get positive comments and recommendations from non-clients on social media, Google+ and Linkedin. It is not unethical to solicit positive reviews from referral sources and other non-clients. Positive comments serve as endorsements of your expertise.
- Catch negative comments early. Google yourself often. Also set up alerts at Google.com/alerts and at Talkwalker.com. When your name appears on websites or on social media, you will get a link via email.
- Be careful what you post on private listservs and on Facebook. There’s nothing preventing someone from copying and pasting information and images onto a public area of the Internet.
- Be mindful of how you conduct your personal life. You never know when someone with a camera will document and post your public tantrum or other unprofessional behavior.
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Pauline Wallin, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Camp Hill, Pa., and co-founder of The Practice Institute, LLC. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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